donderdag, november 30, 2017

Some borders are visible and solid, like the wall between the United States and Mexico. Many borders are less obvious, but  have a great impact. Politicians draw non-physical borders around ‘our identity’ and ‘our culture’, marketers create divides between men and women. Some lines we draw ourselves – we call ourselves left or right, Christian or Muslim. But more often the lines are drawn by others: they define us as minority, elite, black or gay.

Which borders do we experience, personally and in society, and how can we cross them? Around 150 people from different nationalities and beliefs – from Bahai, Hindu and Buddhist to the three monotheistic faiths – gathered to discuss these questions during the annual Interfaith Conference at the International Institute  of Social Studies in the Hague on the 18th of November. The conference, that carried the theme Crossing borders, building bridges was organised in collaboration with Initiatives of Change Netherlands and the student chaplaincy of The Hague Haastu. 

Interfaith Conference 2017Violence

After an interfaith opening with prayers and songs from various religions, participants were invited to meet and discuss at ‘dialogue tables’ and to get inspired by personal stories during the Human Library. Key note speaker was the South-African Muslim scholar and political activist Farid Esack. As an Islamic liberation theologian and feminist, Esack is a man who doesn’t fit in any category himself. 

When an American university tried to pigeonhole him by inviting him to a dinner for ‘minority professors’, he was deeply insulted. ‘Objectively Muslims in South-Africa are a minority. But we are a vibrant community that has lived there for centuries and I have never identified myself as a minority. If borders are imposed upon you and owned by others, this is a form of violence. They make you into an Other, without your consent.’

Interreligious protest

Interfaith Conference 2017To Esack, interreligious collaboration is not about harmony or dialogue. Not about meetings where everybody brings forward the best of their faith and then all smile. As far as he is concerned, it means one thing: working together in solidarity with the oppressed and take action, each inspired by their own beliefs. This goal, to stand up for the oppressed, should bridge the differences between the faiths.

During his activism against the Apartheid regime he therefore worked together with Christian clerics. He tells how they stood shoulder to shoulder in front of a big police force to protest against the eviction of a black township. Bibles and Korans in hand, praying in their own tradition. The ended up in prison together and shared their faiths in the cell.

‘For me the most important divide then was against or in favour of apartheid. So these clerics were my brothers in arms, while some imams supported the regime.’ But for others the divide between Muslims and Christians apparently was more important, because  Esack got a lot of criticism from the Muslim community.


To loose your community in the process is a danger for everybody who is involved in interreligious dialogue and cooperation, says Esack. ‘How do you make sure you are not going to float around in the interreligious space and come to loose, or even despise your own community? The tradition that feeds you and in which you are rooted. How do you reach out, while holding on?’

A real question for some participants. ‘I recognise that internal struggle,’ says the Indonesian Dhika, Muslim and student at the ISS. ‘I feel deeply rooted in my religion, but at the same time sometimes frustrated with the same community.’ The Brazilian Felipe, who is to become a pastor and temporarily visits the Netherlands for an exchange program, would like to reach out from his evangelical community.  ‘But I don’t want to be excluded from church. In my church, people who are involved in interreligious initiatives are seen as heretics, who don’t take the Scripture seriously.’


‘Dialogue should not be isolated, but really change something in the daily life of people,’ says the Dutch-Turkish Tayfun. He tells his story as a ‘book’ during the Human Library, together with the Dutch-Kurdish Bedel. Two years ago they started a dialogue between Dutch Turks, Kurds and Armenians. This dialogue now has grown into a broad initiative with monthly meetings and different activities for outreach, under the flag of The Hague Peace Projects.

Tayfun grew up in a closed Turkish community in the Netherlands as son of Turkish immigrants. Already from a young age Tayfun learned who his ‘Others’ were. ‘When I heard about a Kurd of Armenian, I felt negative emotions.’ When in 2015 the armed conflict with the PKK broke out in Turkey, tensions increased within the Dutch diaspora as well.  Tayfun decided he didn’t want to be held hostage by his leaders or politics. ‘I wanted  to meet the others, from person to person.’

Interfaith Conference 2017Many people from the Turkish community don’t understand his initiative. ‘They ask me: why are you so self-critical, while our community already is under attack? But if the hate is public, the dialogue must be public too.’ Within the Kurdish and Armenian community there is lot of distrust as well: first they kill us, then they want to talk about it? Tayfun tells how it sometimes takes several meetings before someone starts to speak.

Inner borders

‘Often it starts with a confrontation. But as soon as people start to tell their personal stories, they meet,’ says Bedel. ‘I still get goose bumps when I think about these instances.’ During the conversations he discovered that he had all kinds of borders within himself. ‘I discovered for example that I had really strong ideas about a Muslim woman with a scarf. Then I realised that I did the same with her, as others did with me as a migrant.’

Shingi tijdens Interfaith Conference 2017To cross borders, it is important to first understand ourselves and our own world view, says the Zimbabwian Shingi Masunda, who is doing a masters degree in Theology in Groningen. ‘I always thought of myself as open-minded. But the stories I heard today made me realise that I have prejudices and preconceptions as well. I first have to understand them, to understand the other.’  

And sometimes crossing borders will not be enough, says Farid Esack. ‘I want to challenge the liberal notion of just crossing borders and building bridges. Sometimes we have to break down borders. Because it means destroying existing oppression. This will harm the identity and self-perception of many people. If a man for example derives his maleness from a patriarchal system, then I as a feminist will make him uncomfortable. Because his identity consists of the system I want destroyed.’

Interfaith Conference

This was the tenth edition of the Interfaith Conference at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). The annual event started out as a small-scale interreligious meeting for international students. By now it has grown into a conference attended by (mostly international) people from all over the Netherlands. The conference was organised by Waltraut Stroh, student chaplain in The Hague and Delft, and Willem Jansen, student chaplain at Haastu and program coordinator at Initiatives of Change, in collaboration with a group of students from the ISS.

Photos: Laura Reijnders; Report: Irene de Pous